The latest studies by our top sports institutes confirm that beetroot is a little ball of goodness and may enhance the performance of top athletes. Given that every millisecond counts in most competition sports, could this be the right ‘root’ for you to take? Let’s have a look at the facts…
It’s long been known that ruby-red beetroot is an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and it’s packed full of antioxidants. Even the green leafy tops, which are rich in calcium, iron and vitamins A and C, are valuable.
Athletes consuming beetroot isn’t really new. Britain’s four-time Paralympic gold medalist David Weir has revealed he gets his energy for each race from a special kind of shot – a shot of beetroot juice – touting it as ‘the secret to his success’. England’s former rugby fullback Ben Foden also admits experimenting with beetroot over the years, as have a number of professional cricketers and cyclists, and no doubt many others. But now that official studies are coming in thick and fast over the true benefits of beetroot, and how it can directly affect the way the body behaves during exercise, more and more athletes will be taking full advantage.
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT BEETROOT?
Sure, beetroot tastes great on a burger, but it’s really all about the way it utilises nitrate in the body.
The nitrate contained in beetroot juice is converted in saliva, by bacteria on the tongue, into nitrite. This nitrite-containing saliva is then swallowed allowing the acid in the stomach to convert it either into nitric oxide (NO) or have it re-enter the circulation as nitrite. NO acts as a vasodilator, opening up the blood vessels and delivering more blood and oxygen to the muscles. It may also reduce the energy spent on exercise and enhance muscle contraction.
THE STUDIES ON BEETROOT JUICE
A study in 2011 by the Barts and the London School of Medicine discovered that 15 people with high blood pressure who drank one cup of beetroot juice experienced a decrease in blood pressure of about 10 millimetres of mercury (mm Hg) within 24 hours. Compared with the placebo group, those who drank the juice even had reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure after the nitrate circulating in the blood had returned to levels present prior to drinking the beetroot juice. The effect was most pronounced 3-6 hours after drinking the juice, but was it still present even a day later.
Published in a 2001 Medline/Pubmed journal, nine competitive male cyclists were given 500ml of beetroot juice to drink before cycling in a 4km and 16.1km time trial. It was found that the juice increased the performance of the cyclists when performing sprints (about 6-7 minute runs) or longer distances (about 30 minutes). As the beetroot juice lowered systolic blood pressure, it’s thought the nitrates are being converted to nitric oxide, leading to vasodilation and contributing to the mechanism of action.
There have been a few other studies, too, but the most recent was published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. It was a combined Aussie effort by The University of Western Australia (UWA), the Western Australian Institute of Sport and the Australian Institute of Sport, and involved six national-level male and five international-level female kayakers.
‘We looked at the difference that the use of a commercially available 70ml beetroot shot made to the time-trial performance and paddling economy of the athletes,’ explains Dr Peter Peeling from UWA’s School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health.
‘In laboratory-based four-minute ergometer tests, the beetroot supplement had a small effect on the distance covered, but was effective in improving the task economy of the male kayakers,’ says Dr Peeling. ‘When we used a greater volume of beetroot juice (140ml) among our female participants during a field-based 500m kayaking time-trial, we found there was a meaningful performance improvement of 1.7 per cent.
‘Given the margin between gold and silver medals in the Men’s K1-1000m and the Women’s K1-500m races at the 2012 London Olympic Games was 0.3 per cent and 1 per cent respectively, the relatively small performance changes we recorded are clearly relevant,’ he adds.
Dr Peeling says this means ATP, the molecule known as a cell’s energy currency, can be spared during muscular activity, resulting in a decreased oxygen cost for a given task. Therefore, if you can find a way of reducing the oxygen cost of a given activity, you might improve the ability to withstand the exercise intensity for a greater period of time, or find a greater level of output for the original oxygen cost.
Studies like these are certainly proving the argument that adding beetroot to your diet may positively impact performance. ‘The use of this natural vegetable supplement in sport has become increasingly popular,’ admits Dr Peeling. ‘And seeing an athlete with red beetroot stained lips at an endurance event is no longer unusual.’
Will you be one of them?
EASY BEETROOT HUMMUS
400g can chickpeas, drained
1 small cooked fresh beetroot, cut into chunks (or 180g tinned beetroot)
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp tahini
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp salt
Dill leaves, to garnish
Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle
Lebanese bread, water crackers or vegetable sticks, to serve
Place chickpeas, beetroot, garlic, tahini, cumin, lemon juice and salt in a medium bowl. Using a hand blender, blend until mixture is a smooth consistency, adding more lemon juice, if needed, to help with taste and texture. Transfer mixture to a small bowl, garnish with dill and drizzle with olive oil. Serve with grilled and broken Lebanese bread, water crackers or vegetable sticks.
How to buy and store beetroot
Good-quality fresh beetroot will still have the green leaves on top, and it should look fresh and unspoilt. The beetroot itself should be firm and smooth, and vibrant red-purple in colour – if it’s soft, wrinkled or dull, then don’t buy it. Beetroot with greens can be stored for 3-4 days in the fridge. If the greens have been removed, it will keep for 2-3 weeks. Don’t freeze raw beetroot as it goes soft on thawing, losing its flavour and texture. Cooked beetroot will survive freezing.
Are you a beetroot fan? And have you used it to enhance your sporting performance? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.